Posted in Archiving third party content, Connectors, Conservation and preservation, Electronic records, Information Management, Microsoft 365, Microsoft Graph, Records management, Retention and disposal, Solutions

Using Microsoft 365 connectors to support records management

Microsoft 365 includes a range of connectors, in three categories, that can be used to support the management of records created by other applications. The three categories are:

  • Search connectors, that find content created by and/or stored in a range of internal and external applications, including social media.
  • Archive connectors, that import and archive content created by third-party applications.
  • API connectors, that support business processes such as capturing email attachments.

This post how these connectors can assist with the management of records.

The recordkeeping dilemma

Finding, capturing and managing records across an ever increasing volume of digital content and content types has been one of the biggest challenges for recordkeeping since the early 2000s.

The primary method of managing digital records for most of the past 20 years has been to require digital records (mostly emails and other digital content created on file shares) to be saved to or stored in an electronic document and records management system (EDRMS). The EDRMS was established as ‘the’ recordkeeping system for the organisation.

EDRM systems were also used to manage paper records which, over the past 20 years, have mostly contained the printed version of born-digital records that remain stored in the systems where they were created or captured.

There were two fundamental flaws in the EDRMS model. The first was an expectation that end-users would be willing to save digital records to the EDRMS. The second was that the original digital record remained in place where it was created or captured, usually ignored but often the source of rich pickings for eDiscovery.

The introduction of web-based email and document storage systems, smart phones, social media and personal messaging applications from around 2005 (in addition to already existing text messaging/SMS messages) further challenged the concept of a centralised recordkeeping system; in many cases, the only option to save these records was to print and scan, screenshot and save the image, or save to PDF, none of which were particularly effective in capturing the full set of records.

The hasty introduction from early 2020 of ‘work from home’ applications such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams has been a further blow to these methods.

In place records management

To the chagrin of records managers around the world, Microsoft never made it easy to save an email from Outlook to another system. Emails stubbornly remained stored in Exchange mailboxes with no sign of integration with file shares.

And for good reason – they have a different purpose and architecture to support that purpose. It would be similar to asking when it would be possible to create and send an email in Word.

The introduction of Office 365 (later Microsoft 365) from the mid 2010s changed the paradigm from a centralised model – where records were all copied to a central location and the originals left where they were created or captured, to a de-centralised or ‘in place’ model – where records are mostly left where they were created or captured.

The decentralised model does not exclude the ability to store copies of some records (e.g., emails) in other applications (e.g., SharePoint document libraries), but these are exceptions to the general rule.

It also does not exclude the ability to import or migrate content from third-party applications where necessary for recordkeeping purposes.

Microsoft 365 connectors

Microsoft 365 includes a wide range of options to connect with both internal and external systems. Many of these connectors simplify business processes and support integration models.

Connectors may also be used to support recordkeeping requirements, in three broad categories.

The three connectors

Archive connectors

Archive connectors allow organisations to import and archive data from third-party systems such as social media, instant messaging and document collaboration* platforms. Most of this data will be stored in Exchange mailboxes, where it can be subject to retention policies, eDiscovery and legal holds.

(*This option is still limited via connectors, but also see below under Search).

The social media and instant messaging data that can be archived in this way currently includes Facebook (business pages), LinkedIn company page data, Twitter, Webex Teams, Webpages, WhatsApp, Workplace from Facebook, Zoom Meetings. For the full listing, and a detailed description of what is required to connect each service, see this Microsoft description ‘Archive third-party data‘.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the data will be archived to an Exchange mailbox; this will require an account to be created for the purpose. Any data archived ot the mailbox will contribute to the overall storage quotas.

Search connectors

Search connectors (also known as Microsoft Graph connectors) index third-party data that then appears in Microsoft search results, including via Bing (the ‘Work’ tab), from http://www.office.com, and via SharePoint Online.

Most ECM/EDRM systems are listed, which means that organisations that continue to use those systems can allow end-users to find content from a single search point, only surfacing content that users are permitted to see.

The following is an example of what a Bing search looks like in the ‘Work’ tab (when enabled).

Example Bing search showing the Work tab

Note: as at 17 November 2020, Microsoft’s page ‘Overview of Microsoft Graph connectors‘ (which includes a very helpful architecture diagram) states that these are ‘currently in preview status available for tenants in Targeted release.’

There are two main types of search connector:

  • Microsoft built: Azure Data Lake Storage Gen2, Azure DevOps, Azure SQL, Enterprise websites, MediaWiki, Microsoft SQL, and ServiceNow.
  • Partner built. Includes the following on-premise and online document management/ECM/EDRM connectors – Alfresco, Alfresco Content Services, Box, Confluence, Documentum, Facebook Workplace, File Share (on prem), File System (on prem), Google Drive, IBM Connections, Lotus Notes, iManage, MicroFocus Content Manager (HPE Records Manager, HP TRIM), Objective, OneDrive, Open Text, Oracle, SharePoint (on prem), Slack, Twitter, Xerox DocuShare, Yammer

See the ‘Microsft Graph connectors gallery‘ web page for the full set of current connectors.

A consideration when deploying search connectors is the quality of the data that will be surfaced via searches. Duplicate content is likely to be a problem in identifying the single – or most recent – source of truth of any particular digital record, especially when the organisation has required records to be copied from one system (mailbox/file share) to another (EDRMS).

API Connectors

API connectors provide a way for Microsoft 365 to access and use content, including in third-party applications. To quote from the Microsoft ‘Connectors‘ web page:

‘A connector is a proxy or a wrapper around an API that allows the underlying service to talk to Microsoft Power Automate, Microsoft Power Apps, and Azure Logic Apps. It provides a way for users to connect their accounts and leverage a set of pre-built actions and triggers to build their apps and workflows.’

To see the complete list and for more information about each connector, see the Microsoft web page ‘Connector reference overview‘.

Each connector provides two things:

  • Actions. These are changes initiated by an end-user.
  • Triggers. There are two types of triggers: Polling and Push. Triggers may notify the app when a specific event occurs, resulting in an action. See the above web page for more details.

API connectors can support records management requirements in different ways (such as triggering an action when a specific event occurs) but they should not be confused with archiving or search connectors.

Summing up

The connectors available in Microsoft 365 support the model of keeping records in place where they were first created or captured. They enable the ability to archive data from third-party cloud applications, search for data in those (and on-premise) applications, and triggers actions based on events.

The use of connectors should be part of an overall strategic plan for managing records across the organisation. This may include a business decision to continue using an ECM/EDRMS in addition to the content created and captured in Microsoft 365. Ideally, however, the content in the ECM/EDRMS should not be a copy of what already exists in Microsoft 365.

Author:

I am an experienced information management professional based in Melbourne, Australia. I have had close to 40 years of practical working knowledge across the full spectrum of information, records and content management issues, and direct and practical experience with contemporary and emerging business and information and enterprise content management systems. My product knowledge includes SharePoint 2010/2013/Online and OneDrive (SharePoint Administrator), Office 365 (including as a Global Administrator), Yammer, Sway, TRIM Context (R6.2 & 7.1), ECM Documentum, Alfresco Share; and other online systems. www.andrewwarland.com.au

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